God shows up for no good reason. I mean, in this scene why is Jesus there? We assume it’s to be baptized, but John says nothing. For all we know, Jesus is on his way to Family Express. Next day, same thing: no explanation. He just comes out of nowhere. But Jesus is there, and because Jesus is there, God is there. I think Jesus, generally, is like that: he’s around, coming by, waiting to be noticed. Not doing nothing. Offering: you could follow. If you follow, if you let him teach you, he will tell you “I am the vine, you are the branches; I am the good shepherd; I am the bread of life; I am.” God’s name, I AM. Because Jesus is there, God is there. What it means? Well, that’s up in the air.
Meaning is our thing. Human beings construct meanings. Something happens, something is or is not. We think and feel about it and construct what it means. This isn’t “bad”; it’s who we are. Take this story one of my college buddies told me. He and two friends had managed to score front row tickets to an AC/DC concert. The show started with Angus Young, lead guitarist, onstage, playing the introduction to the opening song. Angus famously sweats profusely. So, he’s alone onstage, playing, and sweating. Some sweat falls on my buddy and his friends, and then Angus flubs part of the tune. He quickly recovers and the song continues. One of the fans is devastated: Angus Young flubbed the intro to “Thunderstruck.” The other guy is all, “I have been sweated upon by Angus Young. I am now sanctified in Rock and Roll.” Same incident, different meanings. No one was hurt. It’s all fine.
Christians share holy writings with Judaism. Almost eighty percent of our Bible is what we call the “Old Testament.” They’re writings that existed as holy texts in the First Century, when Jesus lived. All of Jesus’ early followers (that we know of) understood Jesus with these writings. Moreover, they understood that Jesus’ life, ministry, death, and resurrection explained these writings. When Christians read the Old Testament, we read it “Christologically.” We read it as words about Christ. Isaiah might be the most Christologically read book. Some even nickname it the Fifth Gospel. Today’s First Reading, Isaiah 49, has been a Christian favorite since the 50s—the Saint Paul 50s, not the I Love Lucy 50s.
Isaiah writes, “The Lord says… ‘I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach the end of the earth.’” That word “salvation” is, in Hebrew, Yeshuah, which can be a man’s name: Joshua, in English; in Greek and Latin, Iesous, or, Jesus. “There you go!” early Christians said, and so do we. God gives light to all people so that Jesus may be everywhere. That is not what the author of Isaiah meant. No one is 100% certain, but this passage seems to date to the time after Persia had defeated Babylon and freed the Israelites from Exile. The anticipated golden age had not begun. Isaiah was now prepared to hear that God did not want a golden age for Israel; God wanted the people of Israel to be “light to the nations.” Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel contends that the idea is God’s people are to be prophetic people, bearing witness to God in the world. Whether that witness is that Jesus is salvation, or not, that’s a matter of meaning we assign to Jesus, akin to deciding whether to be ecstatic that Angus Young sweated on you, or crestfallen that Angus Young missed some notes. No one is hurt. It’s fine.
We get into trouble when we make our meanings absolute, when we pretend our interpretation of life is reality itself. When we do this, we may force our meanings on others, or let other people force their meanings on others. Anything humans come up with is incomplete, so, we run into stuff we cannot explain or account for, or we run into people or things that do not fit the story we tell.
We Christians have a long history of this that goes back to our beginning, to the synagogues in which our Old Testament was the entire Bible, in which perhaps Jesus himself challenged the way his fellow worshipers read the book. Some Jews said, “Jesus explains the Bible.” Other Jews said, “No. No, he doesn’t.” There’s a split. There are hard feelings. There are dueling interpreters, insisting their interpretations are absolute. Christians begin reading today’s First Reading against Jews. Augustine would say that Christ is a light to the nations, that is, the non-Jews, who have rejected Jesus. It’s embarrassing how much early Christian writing slanders Jews. Judaism is older and established, synagogues in the early centuries of the Church are classy joints, and the Christians are envious. So, we think and say horrible things about Jews. And then, in 313, the Emperor Constantine enforced tolerance of Christianity, and in 325 he got the Churches to write an empire-wide creed. Suddenly, the Church had access to law and government and the use of lethal force. We’d baked so much anti-Judaism into our theology that there was an obvious target for our new power.
The Church must not ignore its anti-Semitic story. Whether it’s Augustine saying we need Jews so we can have a negative example, or crusaders murdering Jews on their way to Palestine, or church-backed pogroms, or church-backed Nazis, or today’s church-endorsed white supremacy and anti-Semitism, the Church universal has a knack for absolutizing its meanings with horrific, lethal consequences for Jews. I think I’ve shared before with you that at the synagogue in Valparaiso, if they have any event at which they expect over a hundred people, they have armed security. And it’s not because how we might say, “In this day and age, you never know”; it’s because they know. After 1700 years of this stuff, they know.
Anti-Semitism is not from Jesus. The god who tells us certain people are inferior and we should destroy them is a far cry from the god moseying by John the Baptist, waiting for us to notice him. And, honestly, we make God into such a ruthless, cruel, insecure jerk. I wonder that God still shows up. God does. For no good reason, God walks by seeing if we will notice. Offering that we could let God be in charge. That we could let our meanings, our stories, our interpretations be just that, and ultimately put our trust in God. And I think this is how God proposes we face down hate—whether it’s anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim, anti-black, xenophobia. It’s not by appealing to human decency. (I don’t think there is such a thing.) It’s by God coming by, waiting to be noticed. It’s by God offering Godself. It’s by God being what God wants God’s followers to be: ones who offer God.
Jesus offers the world an alternative. An alternative to hate. An alternative to anti-Semitism. An alternative to absolutized meanings. It is not doing nothing. Jesus does not pass by something awful and say, “Yeah, not my problem until someone recites the Lord’s Prayer.” It’s more like Jesus passes by, notices our constructed meanings or interpretations, and says, “Well, that’s one way to look at it. And you need something, but ultimately you should just let God be in charge.” That’s what Jesus does in John’s gospel. Wedding at Cana: “We’re out of wine!” I mean, that’s one way to look at it. Or, you could let God be in charge. There’s plenty! Royal official’s son: “My son is sick and could die!” I mean, that’s one way to look at it. Or you could trust God has your son no matter what happens. Paralytic: “I have no one to help me.” I mean, that’s one way to look at it. Or, I’m here. Hungry people: “We have only five loaves and two fish.” I mean, that’s one way to look at it. Or, you could acknowledge God provides enough. You get the idea. Jesus calls us to live as though God is in charge. That’s the alternative.
Hate of a group—anti-Semitism or whatever—really boils down to people not trusting that God can handle everything. God is in charge. God does handle everything. For no good reason that I can think of. I’d have left me a long time ago. God’s handling it. God calls you and me to live as though God’s handling it. God calls us to embody that alternative. To be a community that lives, that eats and sings and prays and spends and rejoices and mourns, as though God is in charge. When we hear, “Fear the other,” we are to live a No, God is in charge. We’re not afraid. When we hear, “God tells us to cut out the other, or to hurt the other,” we are called to live a No, God is in charge. We’re gonna include the other and see what they want to do and maybe we can do it with them. When we hear that vile 2,000 year old slander, “Those people have rejected God,” you can live a Well, I mean, that’s one really unfair way to look at it. But we acknowledge God is in charge of everyone, even you, even us. God’s got them. Perhaps that is how we are to be a light to the nations, that God’s Jesus may reach to the end of the earth.